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Almost 1:00 a.m. on the Bath Road outside HounslowSeptember 1814
We are going to crash. The thought went through Max's brain with almost fatalistic calm. There was not enough room, even if the stage pulled over, even if it were broad daylighteven if he were driving and not his young cousin.
'Rein in, damn it, it's too narrow here!' He had to shout over the wind whipping past them and the thunder of hooves. The stage held the crown of the road, as well it might. At this time of night it was the safest place to beunless you had a private drag bearing down upon you, driven at full gallop by an over-excited eighteen-year-old racing for a wager.
The coach was lit with side lanterns, as they were, and the moon was high and full, bathing the road and the surrounding heath in silver light, but Max did not need it to judge the roadhe knew it like the back of his hand.
'I can make it!' Nevill looped the off-lead rein and the team, obedient to the lightest touch, moved out to the right ready to overtake, and they were committed.
Snatching the reins would not help; they were going too fastthe big Hanoverian bays, full of oats and more than a match for any stagecoach team, especially night-run horses, were too powerful to stop in this distance. And somewhere behind them, moving just as fast, was Brice Latymer, out for blood, and behind him, Viscount Lansdowne.
Max raised the yard-long horn to his lips and blew, more in hope than expectation. If they were lucky, if the driver of the stage was alert, strong and experienced, they might get away with a sideways collision and at least the horses would not plough straight into the back of the stage.Unlucky, and there would be a four-coach pile-up and carnage.
And the miracle happened. The stage, scarcely checking its speed, drew tight to the left, the whipping branches of the hedgerow trees lashing the side, forcing the rooftop passengers to throw themselves to the right. It was lurching, its nearside wheels riding the rim of the ditch, but if Nevill could keep his head they might just make it through.
'Go, damn it!' he thundered. Nevill dropped his hands and the bays went through the gap like a cavalry charge. The drag tilted to the right, bounced, branches scored down the length of the black lacquer sides and then they were neck and neck with the stage.
Now he had created the space the other driver was slowing, fighting his team to keep the vehicle steady and out of the ditch it was teetering on. Max looked across, wanting to send a silent message of apology, and found himself looking into an oval face, white in the moonlight, the eyes huge, dark and furious, the mouth lush. A woman's face?
Then they were past. Max shook himselfhe was mistaken, or in the confusion of the moment he had seen the face of one of the rooftop passengers, not the driver.
He glanced to the side. Nevill was visibly shaken now the crisis had passed, his hand lax on the reins. 'Here, take them.
I'm going to be sick.' He thrust the reins towards Max, making the bays jib at the confusing signals.
'No, you are notdrive! This is your bet, your responsibility, and I just hope to hell the others were far enough back to miss that.'
The Bell was perhaps three minutes ahead. The end of the race. If the stage didn't come through in five minutes it would be in the ditch and he would have to go back and see what he could do to help.
Who is she? The glimpse of that exquisite face seemed burned into his mind. Just a hallucination caused by fear, excitement, the relief of finding we were through after all? Or a flesh-and-blood woman? His blood stirred. He realised, with shock, that he was aroused. I want her.
'We're here,' Nevill said with a gasp. 'The Bell.'
Two and a half hours earlier
'Have you heard a word I said?'
'Probably not.'Max Dysart looked up from his contemplation of the firelight reflected in the toes of his highly polished boots and grinned unrepentantly at his young cousin.
Despite the fact that the clocks on the high mantel had just struck half past ten, and the darkness outside was pierced by countless points of flickering light, he and all the men in the noisy, convivial company were dressed in buckskin breeches, riding boots and carelessly open coats. Only the elegance with which they wore their casual dress and the pristine, uncreased whiteness of their Waterfall cravats hinted that these were members of the Nonesuch Club and not denizens of some sporting tavern.
'What were you thinking about?'Nevill demanded, folding himself down on to the buttoned-leather top of the high fender and holding out one hand to the fire. 'Women,' Max drawled, knowing it would bring a blush to Nevill's cheeks. The boy was on the cusp of ceasing to find women terrifying and unnecessary and discovering that they were still terrifying, but mystifyingly desirable, as well. He was too easy to tease, although women had certainly been the subject of Max's brooding thoughts.
Max gave up trying to solve the conundrum of how he was going to find a suitable bride he could tolerate, marry and produce an heir with when he was, when he came right down to it, not certain he was in a position to make anyone an offer. He gave his cousin his attention, focusing on the youth's eager face. He could just give up on the problem and accept Nevill as his heir, he supposed. Or was that the coward's way out?
Nevill Harlow was just eighteen and appeared still to be growing into his hands and feet. He was also by far the youngest member of the Nonesuch Whips, gathered for their monthly meeting in their usual room at the Nonesuch Club on the corner of Ryder Street and St James's. Young he might be, but even the highest stickler amongst the members accepted him for his growing skill with the ribbons and his relationship to Max Dysart, Earl of Penrith, acknowledged nonpareil amongst drivers.
Acknowledged by everyone except, inevitably, Brice Latymer. Latymer was sitting beside the betting book, tapping his teeth with the tip of a quill pen and regarding the cousins sardonically.
Max let the cool regard slide over him without giving any sign he had noticed it. Sometimes he thought Latymer lived to antagonise him. The man's scarcely veiled pleasure whenever he bested Max, whether in a race, at cards or by cutting him out for a dance, mystified him.
'What should I have been listening to?'
'I've had a bet with Latymer.' Nevill was grinning with excitement. 'But you'll need to lend me your bays.'
'My what?' Max swung his feet down off the fender. 'Your bays. And the new drag. I've bet I can beat him and Lansdowne to the Bell at Hounslow.'
'In my new drag, driving my bays? My four expensive, perfectly matched, Hanoverian bays?'Max enquired ominously.
'Yes.' Nevill was not known for the strength of his intellect, more for his abounding good nature, but it was obviously beginning to dawn on him that his magnificent cousin was not delighted by the challenge he had accepted. 'They're more than able to beat Latymer and his greys.'
'They are. Are you? Are you aware what I will do to you if you sprain so much as a fetlock?'
'Er no.' Out of the corner of his eye Max could see the rest of the Nonesuch Whips watching them, most with good-natured grins on their faces. They all knew Max's feelings about his precious bays, and they all liked young Nevill, but the rare opportunity to view Max Dysart, Earl of Penrith, losing his fabled self-control was eagerly anticipated.
'I will tear your head off your shoulders,' Max promised softly, dropping his arm over Nevill's shoulders and smiling a crocodile's smile. The younger man flinched, his nervous grin wavering. 'I will knot your arms behind your neck and I will use your guts for garters.'
'Right.' It was a strangled squeak.
'And do you know what I will do if you lose to our friend Mr Latymer?'
'No.' That was a gulp.
'Never let you drive one of my horses again, as long as you live.' Max imbued his smile with all the menace he could muster and felt the bony shoulders under his arm quiver. 'Are you allowed passengers?'
'No. Just a guard to carry the yard of tin.'
'Right. I'll do that.'He felt the relief run through the young man. 'When is it for?'
'Midnight, tonight. Leaving from here. I wanted to send round to your mews and get them harnessed up. ' Nevill's voice began to trail away.
'Just ask next time before you lay the bet,'Max said mildly, creating major disappointment amongst the audience as they realised the anticipated explosion was not going to happen.
But, damn it, he had taught the boy to drive, starting with a pony cart, graduating through curricle and phaeton until he could manage a drag, the heavy private coach drawn by four horses, and a match in size, weight and speed for the Mail or the stagecoaches. If he could not trust Nevill with his team now, it was to mistrust his own teaching.
'Send to the mews.And, Nevill,'he added as his cousin made for the door, enduring amiable joshing as he went. 'Bespeak dinnerI'm damned if I'm waiting until we get to the Bell!'
'Have you had any dinner yet?'
Bree Mallory pushed back her chair and saw Piers standing in the doorway, a pint tankard in his hand. 'No. What time is it?'
Her brother shrugged. 'Nearly eleven. I had the ordinary in the snug an hour past.'
Bree got to her feet, stretched and glanced out of the window overlooking the main yard of the Mermaid Inn. The scene outside in the glare of torches and lanterns would have struck most people as chaos. To Bree's experienced eye it was running like clockwork and the whole complex business of the headquarters of a busy coaching company was just as it should be.
Pot boys were pushing through the crowd with tankards and coffee pots; at least three women appeared to have lost either children or husbands, and in one case, a goose, and through the whole turmoil the grooms leading horses to coaches or to stables wove the intricate pattern that sent out a dozen coaches in the course of the night, and received as many in.
A coach, the Portsmouth Challenge, was standing ready, the porters tossing up the last of the luggage and a reluctant woman being urged on to a roof seat by her husband. Over her head Bree could hear the grinding of the clock gears as it made ready to strike the three-quarter, and she glanced towards the door of the tap room in anticipation. A massive figure in a many-caped greatcoat strode out, whip in hand, jamming his low-crowned hat down as he went. It was Jim Taylor, the oldest and most cantankerous of all the Challenge Coaching Company's drivers.
As the clock struck Jim swung up ponderously on to the box, arranged the fistful of reins in his left hand without glancing at them and shouted, 'Let them go!'
'You could set your watch by him,' Piers commented, strolling across to join his sister at the window.
'You can by all of them,' she riposted, 'or we wouldn't employ them.'
'You're a hard woman, Bree Mallory.' He gave her a one-armed hug round the shoulders in passing, grinning to show he was only teasing.
Bree smiled back. 'I have to be. This is a hard business. And why haven't you gone home to bed?' He might look like a man, her tall, handsome, baby brother, but he was only seventeen and, if he hadn't been recovering from a nasty bout of pneumonia, he would have been at school at Harrow. 'And my excuse, before you ask, is that the corn chandler's bill is completely at odds with the fodder records again and either he is cheating us, or someone is stealing the feed.'
'I was finishing my Latin text.' He grimaced. 'It's enough to put me into a decline, the amount of work the beaks have sent me home with.'
'If you hadn't spent most of the day hanging round the yard, you'd have been done hours ago,' Bree chided mildly. Piers was itching to finish at school and come to start working at the company. It was his, after all. Or at least, he owned half of it, with George Mallory, their father's elder brother, retaining his original share.
Bree had a burning desire to protect the company for Piers. Uncle George, with no children of his own, would leave his half to his nephew eventually and then there would be no stopping her brother.
He already knew as much as Bree about the business, and rather more about the technical aspects of coach design and the latest trends in springing than she ever wanted to know. 'Where are my journals?' he wheedled now. 'I have finished my Latin, honestly.'
'They look even more boring than the grammar texts,'Bree commented, lifting the pile of journals dealing with topics such as steam locomotion, pedestrian curricles and canal building off the chair by her desk. 'Here you are.'
'I am giving up on the mystery of the vanishing oats for the night.' Bree blotted the ledger and put away her pens. 'Come on, let's go and find some dinnerI expect you can manage to put away another platter of something.'
They rented a small, decent house in Gower Street, but the sprawling yard of the Mermaid seemed more like home for both of them and they maintained private rooms up in the attic storey for when they chose to stay overnight.
Bree stopped and looked back over the yard, seized with a sudden uneasiness, as though things were never going to be the same again. She shook herself. Such foolishness. 'You weren't born when Papa bought thisI can only just recall it.' She smiled proudly. 'Twenty years and it's turned from a decaying, failed business into one of the best coaching inns in the capital.'
'The best,' Piers said stoutly, cheerfully ignoring the claims of William Chaplin at the sign of the Swan with Two Necks, or Edward Sherman's powerful company with its two hundred horses, operating out of the Bull and Mouth.
From small beginnings, with his own horses and a modest stage-wagon service, William Mallory had built it into what it was today, and Bree had grown up tagging along behind him, absorbing the business at his coat tails.
It had worried her father, a decent yeoman farmer, that his daughter did not want to join the world of her mother's relatives, but Edwina Mallory had laughed. 'I was married to the son of a viscount, my eldest son is a viscount and I am delighted to let him get on with it! Bree can choose when she is older if she wants a come-out and all the fashionable frivols.'
And perhaps, if Mama had lived longer, Bree might have done. But Edwina Mallory, daughter of a baron, once married to the Honourable Henry Kendal, had died when Bree was nine, and her relatives seemed only too glad to forget about the daughter of her embarrassing second marriage.
'What does Kendal want?'Piers asked, hostility making his voice spiky. He had picked up the letter lying on her desk, recognising the seal imprinted on the shiny blue wax.
'I don't know,' Bree said, taking it and dropping it back again. 'I haven't opened it yet. Our dear brother is no doubt issuing another remonstrance from the lofty heights of Farleigh Hall, but I am in no mood to be lectured tonight.'
'Don't blame you,' Piers grunted, handing her the shawl that hung on the back of the door. 'Pompous prig.'
She ought to remonstrate, Bree knew, but Piers was all too correct. Their half-brother, James Kendal, Viscount Farleigh, was, at the age of thirty, as stuffy and boring as any crusted old duke spluttering about the scandals of modern life in his club.
As soon as Bree was old enough to realise that her mother's connections looked down on her father, and regarded her mother's remarrying for love as a disgrace, she resolved to have as little as possible to do with them. Now, at the age of twenty-five, she met her half-brother perhaps four times a year, and he seemed more than content for that state of affairs to continue. 'I don't expect he can help it,' she said mildly, following Piers out into the yard. 'Being brought up by his grandfather when Mama remarried was almost certain to make a prig out of him. You won't remember the old Viscount, but I do!'
Bree broke off as they negotiated the press of people beginning to assemble for the Bath stage in less than hour.
'Hey, sweetheart, what's a pretty miss like you doing all alone here in this rough place? Come and have a drink with me, darling.'
Bree looked to her left and saw the speaker, a rakish-looking man with a bold eye and a leer on his lips, pushing towards her.
'Can you possibly be addressing me, sir?'she enquired, her voice a passable imitation of Mama at her frostiest.
'Don't be like that, darlin'what's a pretty little trollop like you doing in a place like this if she isn't after a bit of company?'
As Bree was wearing a plain round gown with a modest neckline, had heradmittedly eye-catchingblonde hair braided up tightly and was doing nothing to attract attention, she was justifiably irritated. But it was the rest of the impertinent question that really got her temper up.
'A place like this? Why, you ignorant clod, this is as fine an inn as any in all Londonas fine as the Swan with Two Necks. I'll have you know'
'Is this lout bothering you?' At the sight of Piers, six foot already, even if he had some growing to do to fill out his long frame, the rake began to back away. 'Get out of here before I have you whipped out!'
'Honestly, Bree, you shouldn't be here without a maid,' Piers fussed as they pushed their way into the dining rooms and found their private table in a corner. 'You're too pretty by half to be wandering about a busy inn.'
'I don't wander,'she corrected him firmly. 'I run the place. And as for being too pretty, what nonsense. I'm tolerable only and I'm bossy and I'm too tall, and if it wasn't for this wretched hair I wouldn't have any trouble with men at all.'
The waiter put a steaming platter of roast beef in front of them and Bree helped herself with an appetite, satisfied that she had won the argument.